They say that hindsight is a wonderful thing. But certain Sony bosses must still rue the day that they turned down one particular offer in the late 1990s. It would have made the company billions. The deal in question? None other than the entirety of comic book giant Marvel’s back catalog.
Yes, a full decade before Disney laid its hands on the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk, Sony had the chance to get there first. But in an era when comic-book characters weren’t exactly the coolest thing around, the studio decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Instead, it focused solely on buying the rights to Spider-Man.
Sony’s hesitancy initially appeared to pay off. Its Spider-Man films grossed an impressive $5.2 billion at the box office. However, by 2018 Disney’s never-ending Marvel output had raked in an almighty $13.9 billion. Here’s a look at the deal that never was. And it was one that could have changed the course of Marvel history.
Stuck in development hell for almost a quarter-century, Spider-Man’s first live-action feature finally arrived on screens in 2002. And the wait proved to be worth the wait for the studio behind it, Sony’s main movie production holding, Columbia Pictures. Indeed, starring Tobey Maguire as the titular superhero, Spider-Man raked in a record-breaking $100 million in its opening weekend.
In fact, by the end of its run, the Sam Raimi-directed movie had earned a whopping $821.7 million at the global box office. This made it the third-biggest movie of the year and the highest-grossing superhero film of all time. Unsurprisingly, Sony soon announced plans to make a sequel.
Arriving in cinemas two years later, Spider-Man 2 actually made less money than its predecessor. But its $783 million figure was certainly nothing to be sniffed at. And it received a much stronger critical reception. Indeed, as well as picking up an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, many hailed it as the finest comic-book movie in Hollywood history.
Inevitably, a third Peter Parker adventure was released in cinemas in 2007. The reviews weren’t quite as stellar this time around. However, Spider-Man 3 soon became the highest-grossing chapter of Sam Raimi’s trilogy. Indeed, it scored a remarkable worldwide total of $890.9 million. As you would expect, Sony was keen for even more.
Indeed, the studio had originally intended to make a fourth Spider-Man film and a spin-off centered on the villainous Venom. However, its plans were scuppered when creative differences led to Raimi quitting the franchise. But undeterred, Sony decided that instead of furthering Peter Parker’s story, it they would simply retell it.
Yes, in 2012 the superhero returned to screens in reboot The Amazing Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield replaced Tobey Maguire in the leading role, while Marc Webb took over from Sam Raimi in the director’s chair. Despite the fact that the same story had only been told a decade previously, audiences proved to be receptive. Indeed, the movie took in $757 million across the globe.
However, Spider-Man fatigue appeared to have set in by the time its sequel arrived in 2014. Indeed, The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s tally of $709 million was by far the lowest of the character’s five big screen ventures. And its underperformance caused Sony bosses to cancel any future chapters and spinoffs.
Entertainment industry writer Ben Fritz told the Sequart Organization in 2018 why he felt that these films failed to meet expectations. He said, “I think there was no single person who had a clear vision for what a great Spider-Man movie should be who were empowered to go make that movie. There was so much pressure from the highest levels of Sony to keep up with Marvel Studios that the movies got bogged down with too many ideas.”
Fritz added, “The worst example is the many villains in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, who were included so they could appear in a spin-off called Sinister Six. They were distractions from the main plot. In the end, the Amazing Spider-Man movies lacked the joy of a teenager discovering new super-powers, a joy present in 2002’s first Spider-Man.”
Indeed, by this point Sony was playing catch-up with the studios that had brought several of Spider-Man’s fellow superheroes to life. In fact, by 2014 both Marvel and Disney were reaping the rewards of a pioneering strategy that would ultimately change the face of the Hollywood blockbuster. And it all started with a talent agent’s brainwave.
In 2003 David Maisel approached Marvel boss Isaac Perlmutter about a revolutionary concept. Instead of licencing the superheroes’ rights out to other studios, why not make even more money by making the films yourself? This would also allow characters to inhabit not only their own vehicles, but others too, essentially creating one epic shared universe.
After negotiating a deal in 2005 with Merrill Lynch, a firm on Wall Street, Marvel began to bring Maisel’s idea into fruition. And it sure had a lot riding on it. Indeed, if its subsequent movies failed to gross enough money, then the bank would take ownership of all its beloved characters.
Marvel Studios was given a whopping $525 million by Merrill Lynch to play with. This figure would allow the studio to make ten different films of varying budget sizes. It also enabled Marvel to buy back the rights to various superhero characters it had previously sold, including Thor, Black Widow and, most importantly, Iron Man.
Indeed, Iron Man was the first movie to be independently produced by Marvel Studios. And it proved to be a major success. Directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr. as the titular hero, Iron Man raked in $585 million at the worldwide box office. A second installment in 2010 grossed an even higher figure, $623.9 million.
Marvel’s first phase of movies also included The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. But its most significant entry was undoubtedly The Avengers. Directed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, this 2012 release assembled all the Marvel Universe’s main characters together for one epic adventure.
Of course, just a year after kickstarting its success with Iron Man, Marvel got into bed with an even bigger entertainment company. Indeed, in 2009 The Walt Disney Company bought the studio for an incredible $4.3 billion. And Marvel CEO Avi Arad insisted that Disney had gotten itself a bargain.
Indeed, the typically outspoken Arad described the ten-figure price tag as “laughable” in an interview with online magazine Slate. He then added, “People were saying, ‘Wow, that’s a high price.’ It’s a cheap price! It’s nothing! It’s a very strong brand, and we planned on this brand. It wasn’t a fluke.”
And Arad proved to be talking sense. Indeed, Disney’s Marvel deal was essentially a license to print money. Both The Avengers and Iron Man 3 took in over a billion dollars. And even their output featuring less familiar characters still attracted devoted audiences in their droves, with Guardians of the Galaxy taking in an impressive $750 million.
Alongside the aforementioned superheroes, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther and Captain Marvel all got their own moments in the spotlight. Marvel’s canon of superheroes also reunited for a second Avengers, Age of Ultron, in 2015, and then a third, Infinity War, in 2018. However, it was their fourth adventure that proved to be the jewel in Marvel’s crown.
Indeed, the culmination of a story which involved an astonishing 22 other movies, 2019’s Avengers: Endgame raked in a record-breaking $1.2 billion in its opening week. Just a few weeks later, it had doubled that tally. This meant that it was soon challenging Avatar’s $2.788 billion tally for the title of the world’s highest-grossing film ever.
The final two Avengers outings also featured a character who hadn’t previously been a part of Marvel’s shared cinematic universe. In 2015 Sony agreed a deal with Marvel that allowed Spider-Man to join the rest of his superhero allies but remain its property. Played by Tom Holland, this particular incarnation of the character first appeared in Captain America: Civil War.
Sony then gave Tom Holland’s Spider-Man his own solo outing a year later. Spider-Man: Homecoming may have been the character’s third different origins story in just 15 years. But audiences still seemed keen to learn yet again how Peter Parker got his powers. In fact, with a worldwide total of $880 million, the movie was the sixth-biggest of 2017.
In 2018 Sony enjoyed both commercial and critical success with an animated adventure centered on the web-slinging superhero. Indeed, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse took more than $375 million across the globe. It also picked up Best Animated Feature at both the Golden Globes and Oscars. Thus it became the first non-Pixar or Disney movie to win the latter since Rango in 2011.
And Sony continued to treat its sole Marvel superhero like a cash cow. In 2019 Spider-Man had a seventh live-action cinematic outing in Far From Home. Helmed by Jon Watts, the second reboot’s sequel saw Holland reprise his role as the titular hero and Jake Gyllenhaal make his superhero movie debut as supervillain Mysterio.
Sony may have made billions from its Spider-Man releases. And no doubt it will continue to capitalize on its sole Marvel asset during the current superhero boom. But the studio could have earned so much more had it recognized that the possibilities of a shared universe way back in the late 1990s.
Indeed, in 2019 writer Ben Fritz claimed that Sony had suffered an almighty lapse in judgment when it had passed on the opportunity to acquire the rights for every single Marvel character. In The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies, Fritz reveals that the studio could have bought Marvel’s full back catalog for a measly $25 million back in 1998. But Sony made it abundantly clear that it wasn’t interested in the slightest.
Yes, it’s fair to say that Sony didn’t react to Marvel’s offer in the politest of terms. Yair Landau, the man given the task of acquiring Spider-Man’s theatrical screen rights, claims that one particular executive told him, “Nobody gives a s*** about any of the other Marvel characters. Go back and do a deal for only Spider-Man.”
So why was Marvel so keen to offload its star names for such a bargain price? Well, the studio was in a very different position back in 1998. Indeed, far from the world-conquering Hollywood powerhouse it is today, Marvel had only just clawed its way out of bankruptcy at the time.
Yes, in 1996 Marvel officially filed for bankruptcy following several disastrous business decisions. In a rather ironic turn of events, the company it owed the most money to at the time was its future buyer, Disney. More than 30 percent of its staff lost their jobs during this period, and the company seemed unlikely to make it to the turn of the century.
Marvel’s initial survival plans failed to reverse their fortunes. Its themed restaurant Marvel Mania closed after just 12 months, and comic-book fans met a range of trading cards and CD-ROMs with a shrug. It also licenced the big screen rights to several of its characters to other studios, but this proved to be a case of short-term thinking.
Indeed, although 1998’s Blade grossed $70 million in the United States, the studio that owned the character, Marvel, made a measly $25,000. It was a similar story with the money-spinning X-Men franchise. Had Marvel persuaded Sony to accept its initial $25 million deal, then the studio would have benefited briefly. But it would likely have suffered greatly in the long term.
In the end, Sony’s narrow way of thinking proved to be Marvel’s gain. By the time that Black Panther arrived in cinemas in 2018, the studio had grossed an almighty $13.1 billion at the box office with its various superhero movies. And it shows no signs of slowing down either.
Yes, Avengers: Endgame might be the last time we see all our favorite heroes in one place. But several of them will continue to dominate the big screen. Indeed, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow will get her own vehicle at some point, as will the likes of Sersi and Shang-Chi.
Several sequels are on the way too. The much-loved Star-Lord, Groot and Drax the Destroyer will reunite once again for a third chapter of the popular Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. And both the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Doctor Strange and the Academy Award-nominated Black Panther will also return for a second helping.
Writer Ben Fritz told the Sequart Organization that the superhero movie industry isn’t as self-assured as you may think. He said, “I learned how anxiety-ridden studio executives who exude confidence to the outside world really are. There were so many late-night emails written by executives like Amy Pascal, who ran Sony’s motion picture business, where she was grappling with the same questions about super-heroes, sequels, and the viability of original ideas that those of us on the outside were debating.”
Fritz also now acknowledges that some studio bosses would like to be far more creative than they’re allowed to be. He said, “I gained a greater appreciation for how studio executives want to be making more original, risk-taking movies for adults. They don’t necessarily like the trend toward super-heroes and sequels. It’s more of a market reality they are managing.”
In his book, the writer also credits Marvel Studios for seeing the bigger picture in the way that Sony couldn’t. It reads, “Whether you love or hate the seemingly endless parade of big-budget films that seem to exist only to set up sequels and spin-offs, Marvel is the company that developed that model.” Expect Hollywood to continue sticking to such a model for years to come.